Saturday, September 26, 2009

Art review: Erbe show offers reminders -- good and bad -- of a bygone America

Fantasy in Pursuit II (1983), by Gary T. Erbe.


By Jenifer A. Vogt

Anyone who has ever tried to paint knows that it isn’t easy to realistically portray the world around us.

Realism, as a style, necessitates a rare combination of inherent artistic talent, learned draftsmanship, and a distinctive patient observance of the banal. So it’s sort of energizing to marvel at an artist whose work exhibits this visually stunning combination. And it adds to the “wow” factor when you discover — as is the case with Gary Erbe — that they are self-taught.

Gary T. Erbe: 40 Year Retrospective, now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, spans the time period of the 1960s to the present. The 50 works on display illustrate the progression (and perfection) of his distinct style, which he calls "levitational realism,” and occasionally reference the influence of artistic movements, such as Cubism. Erbe’s work is earmarked by his skilled depiction of commonplace objects, such as baseball cards, comic books, and musical instruments combined with a teary-eyed, joyful reminiscence – primarily for the America of the 1950s.

The Big Splash (2001), by Gary T. Erbe.

Erbe’s significance lies, partly, in his personal take on trompe l’oeil painting. The term dates to the Baroque period and roughly translates from French as “trick of the eye.” This style of painting creates an optical illusion of three-dimensionality. (Think for a moment of those wonderful inner-city building murals that make you want to jump right into them.) Erbe, though, doesn’t use this technique to depict scenes for the viewer to step in to, but rather to bring inanimate objects to life in a vibrant, bounce-off-the-canvas-at-you way.

His mastery of trompe l’oeil is remarkably evident in his depiction of brass fixtures, such as the brass buckle of the saddle on the merry-go-round horse in Fantasy in Pursuit II (1983), the painting that greets you at the exhibit’s entrance. I stared at it for a while before moving to the side of the painting to confirm that it was painted — and not stuck on. Erbe paints in oil and this gives his paintings a slick smoothness and finish that mimics the photos in glossy magazines.

Of his style, Erbe has said, “While there are elements of trompe l’oeil in my work, I have less of an interest in fooling the eye in favor of stimulating the mind.” He is concerned with challenging his viewer by creating a collage of juxtaposed objects that float in mid-air: hence, Levitational Realism. As for process, he often begins with a still-life arrangement of objects, as seen with Ambush (1998), which is shown alongside the still-life box he crafted to paint from.

Subway Series (2008), by Gary T. Erbe.

Apart from skill and technique, what’s most striking in Erbe’s work is the stardust that emanates from his nostalgia for the America of his 1950s childhood — and, especially, baseball. The fun and reverential way that he depicts baseball memorabilia in Baseball Album (2003) will make you smile. Players, hats, gloves, banners, bats, cards and magazines are all placed in a shrine with reverential awe. And it’s obvious that Erbe’s fascination with the sport continues with the same reverence in Subway Series (2008).

Apart from baseball, Erbe’s other passion, clearly, is music. Many paintings joyfully and wryly depict musicians, instruments and song lyrics. In Take Five (1981-82) a hardworking musical trio has just finished its break. Look alongside the bottom of the painting where you’ll see a discarded flask, coffee cup, and cigarette butts.

Take Five (1981-82), by Gary T. Erbe.

Also, note that Erbe has included his name on the trombone because this is something he does in various paintings throughout the exhibit. Once noted, it’s fun to look for and find in other works, such as in an unusual spot in Lifeline (1996) and a few others that I won’t give away.

Yet despite the loving tributes, other works allude to the dark side of the Fifties, in particular, to racism and segregation. Southern Nights (1999) juxtaposes the tools of southern lynch mobs, including a white tablecloth transformed into a KKK hood, a rope for hangings, a wheat stalk and scythe, and the song lyrics to When It’s Night Time Down in Dixieland. Other works, such as Southern Shadows (2001) and Arrangement in Brown and White (1997), are marked by white paint splatters. Here Erbe more subtlety acknowledges the profound oppression and exploitation of black culture that marked this decade.

The Erbe reinforces the Boca Museum of Art’s notable dedication to American art, which brings significant contemporary painters to our backyard. As with the recent Andrew Stevovich exhibit, Erbe’s work exhibits a wry, tongue-in-cheek amusement for the mundane — and for making the mundane intriguing and appealing. But, most importantly, these shows encourage viewers to look beyond the sleek surface and consider the ideology and symbolism that artists infuse into their work. And therein lies the true genius of American painting.

Jenifer A. Vogt is a marketing communications professional and resident of Boca Raton. She’s been enamored with American painting for the past 20 years.

Gary T. Erbe: 40-Year Retrospective is on view until November 8. Tickets: Adults $8, seniors $6, free for children 12 and under. Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, Saturday and Sunday 12-5 p.m. Closed Mondays, Tuesday and holidays. Call 561-392-2500 or visit www.bocamuseum.org.

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